I used to have an entire corner of my room dedicated as an altar. I would re-do it on a pre-determined schedule for the changing seasons — the clichéd version of the temperate-zone seasons, anyway. You know: spring flowers, summer sun, autumn gourds, winter snow.
We didn’t have those seasons where I lived, in coastal Southern California, but since I didn’t want to be living there, I didn’t celebrate what we did have. Which is a shame. I could have had a purple altar in June, covered in jacaranda flowers, and a collage of green, green mountains in December. Shells and sand and photos of migrating whales; shed sycamore bark, and sprigs of blooming chaparral.
Instead, my seasonal thinking at the time ran along lines like these:
Then I moved to Portland, where we had (for a little while) seasons a bit more like my ideal. And then at some point I got too busy or too ironic or too embarrassed to keep an altar. Too fussed about the exact shape and nature of my religious understanding, probably. I still find that mysterious shape interesting, but I’m tired of letting its ambiguity hamper my practice.
It’s occurred to me lately to build an altar-space again. But something else I’m tired of is the number of checkboxes crowding my days. Quite often, I’d rather burn my planner than Get Things Done. I don’t have space for more Things To Do. But a practice is a habit, I told myself, and habits are learned by disciplined doing. Also though, sometimes by undisciplined doing. Sometimes things need to come naturally, or not.
One day during these several months of casually debating the altar question, I turned to file a new book in the small space I vaguely name my “sacred shelf.” It’s the top tier of a three-shelf bookcase inherited from my mother, which I love because it’s a deep walnut color and because it has character, unlike so much of the furniture available to me. It’s where I began maybe two years ago to keep certain books: ones that mean something deep and vital to me, in a particular way I can’t verbally express. (I’m sure I’ll try.) More lately, I’ve started placing other objects there: rocks from my best-loved landscapes, specific gifts from human friends, a photo that speaks to me of the present season.
You know where this is going: I’ve made an altar, without ever intending to do so. That it’s comprised of word, rock, and dear-human gift should certainly not surprise me. I’m marveling, though. I’m delighted and I’m bemused. A pleasant state of affairs altogether.